While global attention shifts back and forth between Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, stately old Madras has quietly metamorphosed into cosmopolitan Chennai. Today, it has become the most successful large urban entity in India by every statistical measure.
Chennai has always possessed an air of sophistication that comes with being the great city of the South, magnetically drawing students, intellectuals and entrepreneurs from across the region. It has spectacular heritage structures, such as the magnificent Indo-Saracenic High Court built in 1892, the elaborate eighth-century Parthasarathy Temple, the historic Safire Theatre Complex (the first multiplex in India), superb bookshops like the sprawling Higginbothams (the oldest in the country) and trailblazing discotheques like Nine Gems, which some argue was India’s first.
“Chennai is a town that straddles the conventional and the possible,” says Carnatic music icon TM Krishna. The artist feels that his hometown is different because there is “a greater involvement of people from various caste and class groups in creative spheres.” Tamil cinema has a large role to play in this, with a new generation of bold, progressive directors willing to take risks. “I believe they are far more open to newer experiences,” continues the 41-year-old musician. “Hence, the city itself is thinking beyond its old moral confines.”
Krishna himself epitomises how Chennai is transforming. Born and raised in the city, he grew up to become a superstar singer and champion of South Indian music. In 2015, he stunned the classical music world by refusing to perform during the December music season, the pinnacle of Carnatic high culture.
“Democratisation of the arts fascinates me,” he explains of his decision to refocus his interests on innovative projects like the annual countercultural Urur-Olcott Kuppam festival, which takes high-end classical music to a seaside fishing community, and features performances in a variety of unconventional venues, including a moving bus.
This spirited universality is a trademark attitude in Chennai, which generates world-class companies and collaborations that blend the best of East and West. A perfect example is Tara Books, publisher of illustrated tomes prized by children and art collectors alike. Praised by Booker Prize winner and art critic John Berger for “making some of the best books in the world”, it stands alone among Indian publishers for winning numerous international accolades.
For any child or bibliophile, no trip to Chennai is complete without a visit to the quiet residential neighbourhood of Thiruvanmiyur, which houses Tara Books’ quirky, light-filled Book Building. This pleasant, low-rise locality lies close to the landmark Kalakshetra dance school, founded by the legendary Bharatnatyam dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale, which is recognised as an Institute of National Importance.
Sitting in her meeting room surrounded by bookshelves, Gita Wolf, the 50-something founder of Tara Books, explains that she started with a simple desire to challenge old-fashioned notions of children’s literature. Now, her company is renowned for its handmade books featuring eye-popping artwork. “From here, we connect with creative people from all over the world every day,” she says.
If Chennai wears its 21st-century cosmopolitanism lightly, it is undoubtedly because the world has always visited this stretch of coastline. That is the story of Mylapore, the “land of the peacock screams”, which the Roman Ptolemy made famous over 2,000 years ago. Today, its most important monument is the St Thomas Cathedral Basilica, built over the tomb of Jesus’ apostle, who was martyred here in 72 AD after arriving in India via trade routes from the Middle East.
By the ninth century, Arab traders were referring to the area as Betumah (town of Thomas). Marco Polo paid his respects in the 13th century. In the 16th century, Portuguese visits resulted in the cathedral’s construction, which was later patronised by the British. In typical Indian style, the tomb is visited by petitioners of all religions, many coming from Mylapore’s hundreds of other shrines, including the 17th-century Kapaleeshwarar Temple.
Attend a Sunday mass in St Thomas and you just might run into the city’s South Korean expatriate community. They’re a by-product of Chennai’s automobile manufacturing boom, with over 5,000 Koreans immigrating here in the last two decades to manage factories for Hyundai and Samsung. As well as swelling the ranks of churchgoers, they’ve opened restaurants identical to those in Seoul, as well as InKo Centre, a cultural hub in the Boat Club neighbourhood.
Set in a beautifully converted residential bungalow, this island of minimalist Korean chic hosts cultural programmes and language classes. It houses a gallery displaying art from the homeland, a tiny café and an intriguing shop selling elegant products made in Korea, from stainless steel chopsticks to exquisite silk scarves.
“I like living in Chennai because there is always something new happening, but nothing old goes away either,” muses 23-year-old Korean native Samuel Kim, who has worked as a translator in the city for two years. “You can go from almost Stone Age to space age. The city remembers its past, though it looks forward all the time. ”
Chennai is the epicentre of Carnatic music, the age-old vocal and instrumental traditions of South India with a fanatical following aross the Tamil diaspora. For around six weeks every December and January, during the Chennai Music Season, the city overflows with over 1,500 performances by both amateur and established musicians; concerts are free during the day but ticketed at night.
In the 18th century, commercial and cultural activities shifted to the area around the newly built Fort St George, with its twin “white” and “black” towns, kept separate via colonial apartheid. Popular Madras historian S Muthiah notes that it “remained the heart of business activities in South India.” Befitting that importance, George Town grew exponentially, becoming congested with narrow streets that were “an exotic Arabian Nights bazaar for the tourist”.
That description still applies to today’s densely packed Burma Bazaar, which extends through Parry’s Corner, near the Chennai Beach railway station. Set up in the late 1960s, it’s filled with shops run by Tamil refugees from Myanmar, who sell various electronics and a whole range of (sometimes suspect) imported merchandise, from chocolates to perfumes.
But step through the fading whitewashed entrance to the 18th-century Armenian Church, and the traffic mayhem and commercial chaos from outside fade away to serenity. Caretaker Jude Johnson is fiercely proud of his role as custodian of this relic of Chennai’s past. “This is my life’s work,” he declares. “The city is changing fast, but if we don’t look after places like this, then we will lose the meaning of who we are.”
This site is truly another world in itself, with its belfry of London-made bells, and 350 graves etched with Armenian script. It’s also home to the tombstone of Reverend Haruthium Shmavonian, a scholar and priest who is remembered as the father of Armenian journalism. Indeed, it could be argued that the seeds for modern Armenia were sown here in George Town.
As the late jazz pianist Madhav Chari often commented, Mumbai is brash, and New Delhi is brazen, but Chennai remains remarkably unobtrusive. Yet, in a curiously understated manner, the city spills over with opulence and savoir faire, featuring top-class food from around the world, top-end shopping and a gamut of hotels from boutique to behemoth.
Take a stroll along Khader Nawaz Khan Road to see Chennai at its most jet-set, with stores like Evoluzione, which sells couture by India’s leading designers like Manish Malhotra, and Naturally Auroville, featuring tasteful objets d’art made in nearby Pondicherry. The street is filled with stylish young people, drawn to the shopping and nightlife, as well as the Alliance Française and Goethe Institut cultural centres. These days you could easily imagine yourself in SoHo or Chelsea.
Sujaya Menon has seen it all happen, starting with her first job at the first five-star hotel in the city. “Chennai always had money and taste, but it has taken a long time for people to become comfortable showing it in the open.” She explains this over a memorable tasting menu of regional specialities at Southern Spice restaurant in Taj Coromandel hotel, where her late husband was the first general manager. In many ways, Menon is all old Madras, highly educated, steeped in classical music and always beautifully turned out in exquisite saris and jewellery.
“Chennai has not lost its original values,” she continues. “In just a few years, it has become a city where you can get anything you want, but it still remains rooted in Tamil Nadu.”
Through the vicissitudes that transported Madras into Chennai, from colonial trading port to global manufacturing hub, one constant has been Marina Beach. This magnificent stretch of sand is both a breathing space for the city and a crucible of democratic expression.
Often described as the second longest beach in the world, it sees every section of Chennai’s populace come to relax in the evening, from tycoon to toddler. Crowds mill around the statues that line the promenade, from Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury’s dramatic Triumph of Labour, to separate monuments to Indian freedom fighters Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose, as well as popular Tamil politician MG Ramachandran. Just opposite stands an array of colonial buildings, including the fascinating Ice House (today known as Vivekananda House) built by the American “ice king” Frederic Tudor, who made his fortune by shipping over ice from North America to India in the late 19th century.
The beach is also the perfect spot to contemplate Chennai’s skyline, fading purple in the dying light. As the award-winning poet Arundhathi Subramaniam puts it, this is a “city that creeps up on [you]”. Indeed, it’s easy to feel its sense of destiny and purpose, even as darkness mantles its contours. Even after all this time, the story of Chennai is still only beginning.
Aki Bay – Surprisingly, ramen is a cult hit in Chennai. This restaurant is run by Satoshi Akimoto, a Japanese native who first arrived in India as an engineer, then re-trained as a ramen chef.
Avartana – The city’s top South Indian restaurant offers up modern iterations of traditional classics, such as tomato rasam (tamarind-based soup) infused with fresh herbs.
ITC Grand Chloa, 63 Mount Rd
Young Doo – There’s no shortage of Korean eateries in a city bristling with hungry expats, but Young Doo stands out with its diverse dishes, from bibimbap (mixed rice) to bulgogi (barbecued beef).
18/1 1st Main Rd, Kotturpuram
In the 1700s, trade routes connected Madras and the northeastern ports of America, resulting in a class of patrician Boston Brahmins. Most notable was Elihu Yale, colonialist businessman and the first president of Fort St George, responsible for the annexation of Mylapore. In 1718, Yale gifted some Indian cotton to a small school in Connecticut, which established a university with the pro ts. Today, Yale University is ranked among the best in the world.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.